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Wining in the Kitchen

By Antonia Moran, Contributing Writer,

As a child, the sight of my mother wielding a blowtorch in an effort to achieve the perfect crème brûlé didn’t incite the least bit of fear in me. Au contraire: I would often beg for the privilege of handling this powerful tool. It was when she poured whiskey into a pan of meat juices and lit a match, setting the whole pot aflame, that I feared my sticker collection and other treasures would burn to a crisp with the rest of the house. Why, oh why, I thought, did she have to use booze and flames in the kitchen?

I have since learned that by flambéing the meat, my mother was eliminating much of the alcohol in the whiskey. Why use whiskey if you just want to rid it of an element that largely defines its being? For the same reason wine is often called upon to enliven a dish: new dimensions of flavor are teased out and give a dish new life and delicious complexity. Only after infusing my own cooking with wine and spirits do I finally understand why my mother seemingly put our house on the line in the quest for that perfect rump roast.

Wine adds dimension to a dish, as it brings out nuances in flavors that might not otherwise have emerged. For example, the buttery, often rich flavors in Chardonnay augment the richness and buttery character of a cream sauce, just as a fruity Zinfandel enhances the flavor of that fruity sauce that would go so well with a pork tenderloin or duck. Because flavors in wine range greatly – from citrus-y, to apple-y or fruity, to berry-like (just to name a few) – the variety of wine one adds to a sauce greatly influences the flavors. A cream sauce infused with Chardonnay will taste quite different than a cream sauce infused with Sauvignon Blanc: while the latter’s herbal, citrusy notes will shine through, the buttery, oftentimes oaked nuances of the former will accentuate the creamy, rich qualities of the sauce.

Although it is possible to experiment by substituting different wines in the same basic sauces, several foods do have affinities for specific types of wine. The stronger the meat, the stronger the wine should be. In other words, for beef and lamb, red would be best. Red can also be successfully used with chicken and veal, although white is called for in certain recipes. Fish is almost exclusively the domain of white wine, as the mild flavors of most fish would be lost in a red sea.

What about those harsh flavors that alcohol can potentially give a dish, and how can a cook soften them? The reason for flambéing with liqueur is to burn off the alcohol quickly, thereby removing the harsh quality the spirit would otherwise contribute to the sauce. With wine, the simple act of cooking causes the alcohol to evaporate (although never completely as long as there is liquid of some sort in the pan), thereby softening the flavors of the sauce. At the same time, the characteristic flavors of the wine intensify and deepen beautifully (berry and cassis in Cabernet Sauvignon, or herbal and grassy in Sauvignon Blanc, for example).

Tannins also contribute to the harsh flavors that wine can potentially bring to a dish, as they add astringency and sometimes bitterness. In order to sidestep this risk, opt to cook with wines low in tannins, such as aged wines, Pinot Noir, Merlot, or a white wine. Very often, a dish calls for a specific type of wine. For instance, a classic dish of the Bordeaux region of France might call for a Bordeaux wine in the sauce, just as a recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon will call for red Burgundy or Pinot Noir (which is the primary red grape of the Burgundy region). Sticking with the recommended wine is not of utmost importance, as it would often have been the wine most readily available to the chef writing the recipe. Selecting a wine with similar characteristics is perfectly acceptable (i.e. don’t use an acidic Chianti or a highly tannic Cabernet Sauvignon if a recipe calls for a Pinot Noir; but a Merlot would do nicely).

Techniques abound when it comes to cooking with wine, and other than sautéing and marinating, cooks can macerate (soaking meat in a liquid in order to soften it), deglaze (dissolving the remaining morsels of roasted or sautéed food in a pot or pan by adding and heating liquid), simmer (cooking gently or remaining at or just below the boiling point), and poach (cooking in a simmering liquid).

And what about drinking the same wine you cook with? It’s always a safe bet, but not a requirement. You could cook with a white and drink a red. While the opposite might be a bit risky, by all means let your own palate be the judge!

Recipes using wine as a component range from those that require just a bit of wine, to those for which wine is the basis of the dish. Enjoy, be creative, and most of all, don’t worry too much if you see flames coming from your kitchen; it’s probably just someone who has discovered the joy of cooking with liqueur and wine.